Archive for June, 2011



This week, LSE received a couple of calls from “Microsoft”, stating that they had detected a virus on the PC that the user was using and could they install an update. Luckily, the person they called is in our support team and she managed to string them along for a bit. We have managed to get the originating telephone number, apparently a Croatian number, and have passed it on to the Police.

It’s worth following up on these calls, which are blatant social engineering attempts and informing staff. We have had reports that Skype users are also being targeted.

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So far, this year, hundreds of millions of users of online services have had their accounts compromised or sites taken down. From Sony, Nintendo, the US Senate, SOCA, Gmail to the CIA, the FBI and the US version of X-Factor. Self-inflicted breaches have occurred at Google, DropBox and Facebook. Hackers have formed semi-organised super-groups, such as LulzSec and Anonymous. Are we at the point where information security professionals are starting to say, “I told you so”?

The telling thing about nearly all of these breaches is simple it would have been to limit the impact: passwords have been stored in the clear, known vulnerabilities not patched, corporate secrecy getting in the way of a good PR message and variable controls on sites of the same brand.

The media’s response is often “hire the hackers!”, an idea that is fundamentally flawed. Would you hire a bank robber to develop the security for a bank? No. The fact is that there are tens of thousands of information security professionals, many of whom are working in the organisations recently attacked, who know very well what needs to be done to fix many of the problems being exploited.

Many corporations have decided to prioritise functionality over security to the extent where even basic security fundamentals get lost. There needs to be a re-assessment of every organisation’s priorities as LulzSec and Anonymous will soon realise that there are juicy and easier pickings away from the large corporates and Government sites, who have had the foresight to invest in information security controls.

This may sadly be just the beginning.


While I am not a lawyer and others have said this before, notably Rob Carolina in his talk “The Cyberspace Frontier has Closed“, I thought it worth reviewing some recent developments that demonstrate the fact that the Internet is not lawless and behaviour online may well result in liabilities “in the real world”.

There still seems to be this perception that laws don’t apply to online activity. Take Joanne Fraill, the juror who was jailed for eight months for contempt of court by contacting one of the defendants in the trial she was on. She had received clear guidance from the Judge on the case, as had all of the other jurors, not to research the case online and definitely not to contact anyone related to the trial. I had exactly the same advice when I was a juror at the Old Bailey a couple of years ago.

And, yet, she still did it, no doubt believing that:

  1. It wasn’t so bad, and;
  2. She wouldn’t get caught anyway.

She was wrong. The trial collapsed.

This sort of thinking is rife online, which is exacerbated by the fact that any search will bring back results that confirm every point of view on every subject, thus not really being much help.

Other areas on the Internet that people should consider in terms of consequences, include:

  • Copyright infringements
  • Data protection issues
  • Harassment
  • Money laundering
  • Tax evasion
  • Libel

Some of these apply to corporate organisations in a different way to individuals. For example, a data protection breach has the potential to seriously damage an organisations reputation. Libel may get you a hefty fine.

Just because people have a romantic notion of the Internet where normal laws don’t apply, doesn’t make it reality.

Wiping Hard Disks


I want to a presentation by Robert Thibadeau on Thursday last week, who was talking at an ISSA UK Chapter meeting, relating to Advanced Persistent Threats (APT), specifically where an attacker is able to modify some part of the pre-boot code, prior to an Operating System being loaded. The thrust of the discussion was about encrypted hard drives being a part of the armoury against these types of attacks, along with Trusted Platform Modules (TPMs).

As we all know, the standard practise of secure erasure for hard disks is to overwrite every sector seven times.

And then there was this nugget of information that I found highly interesting: this won’t work on Solid State Drives (SSDs). The architecture of these drives is determined by the underlying memory technology. Each “sector” on an SSD can only be written to about 1,000 times. In order to deliver a decent lifespan on the more expensive drives, therefore, the drive actually contains significantly more storage than stated on the packaging, with all data going through a load-balancer, to distribute the “writes” across the drive.

This means that it is very difficult to use a process involving overwriting data as each sector may actually be in a completely different place each time you try to overwrite it.

Robert’s proposed solution to this is to encrypt all data on SSDs, regardless of whether they’re in mobile devices or not. This way, the data can be rendered unreadable simply by erasing the encryption key.

It’s worth considering and factoring in to asset disposal processes.


News reaches us of the latest, unannounced Facebook feature: facial recognition. What this implies is that Facebook will trawl through all the photos on the site, automatically “tagging” you in pictures that the system think you’re in.

Great time saver, you might think, but there are several things to think about:

  1. It was enabled, quietly, without user consent and requires users to actively disable the feature
  2. No technology of this sort is 100% accurate, so if you don’t disable it, you may find yourself tagged in embarrassing pictures that aren’t of you
  3. This is an indication of the power of data mining. What’s to stop Facebook mining Google or Bing, looking for pictures on other sites?

With thanks to the Sophos blog on this topic, here’s how you disable it:

Go to Account -> Privacy Settings -> Customise Settings (near the bottom) and go to the “Things others share” section.

Then go down to “Suggest photos of me to friends” and click the edit button.

 

Then select “Disable”.

If Facebook want to be seen to be taking privacy seriously, they should start by adopting a policy of opt-in for new features.

Sony’s Woes


Sony continue to get attacked. Over, and over again. In different countries with different impacts. Searching Google News for “sony hack” comes up with 1880+ articles (6th of June 2011).

It seems to me that Sony don’t have an effective, consistent strategy for dealing with the security of their global online presence. These attacks have gone beyond what the attackers can achieve in terms of compromising systems and are now almost simply providing Sony’s brand and reputation a beating. Even if a script-kiddie were to deface a small-scale, country specific website, the mere fact that it happens to be a Sony site guarantees headlines.

As I have said in previous posts, the biggest change the Internet brings is that distance is no longer a factor when dealing with crime: a hack can look like it’s coming from the other side of the world when, in fact, it’s actually being performed in a coffee shop down the road.

Companies facing these types of issues really have to do some serious work in limiting the impact of future attacks. The first issue is identifying all of the targets, however tenuous a link they may have with the parent brand, and prioritise them in terms of their connectivity to back-end systems or sensitive data. Classify them and review existing controls then implement consistent controls making best use of limited security resources.

I’ve heard senior executives at various organisations state that they don’t see the point of implementing good security because they don’t believe they are a target. It’s impossible to say what motivates every hack, but it’s definitely true to say that it costs organisations less in the long run if they do things properly from the start rather than trying to bolt on security processes after a major incident.

Just look at Sony.

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